Dry January: Understanding Options for Sober and Sober-Curious Las Vegans

Part two: Defining the classifications of alcohol alternatives and discussing proper uses with Las Vegas industry professionals

This is the second installment of a four-part series highlighting the ‘Who’, ‘What’, ‘Why’, ‘How’ and, of course, ‘Where’ of observing Dry January. If you’d like to participate in the conversation, find Gemini on social media: @wishboneandvine.

We’re three weeks into Dry January and it has been … interesting. As much as I was interested in participating for personal reasons—namely the elimination of extraneous calories and breaking the behavior of ordering drinks out of habit—I am learning something about the levels of sober movements and the myriad ways people observe sobriety.

Last week, I wrote about how Dry January started and why Las Vegans decided to participate. It is, however, only the beginning of something so much bigger than that. While the sobriety of Dry January has an expected end date after 31 days, many hospitality industry workers interviewed for this series often discussed longer-term and more dedicated sobriety.

Another lesson learned: discussions about longer-term sobriety require a deeper understanding of what alcohol alternatives are, how they are made, and how they affect our choices.

Zero-proof, non-alcoholic, de-alcoholized: What do they all mean?

One of the biggest lessons I have learned is how different the classifications of non-alcoholic drinks are and how misleading they can be.

Case in point: Not all “non-alcoholic” drinks are, in fact, completely free from alcohol.

As I write this, I am drinking a Surely brand wine beverage: Eight-and-a-half ounces of fizzy pink liquid poured into a crystal wine glass from a blush-colored, slim-profile aluminum can emblazoned with “NON-ALC.” in capital letters (albeit a smaller font from the rest of the text) above the “Sparkling Rosé” flavor description.

Esther’s Spritz / Photo Courtesy of Samantha Gemini Stevens

Of eight lines of text on the front face of the can, the seventh line has the information that seems to negate the capitalized exclamation noted above: “LESS THAN 0.5% ABV.”

Wait… what?

This “non-alcoholic” wine contains alcohol.

It feels deceptive and makes me think that additional—necessary—information is missing.

I find it on the back of the can: First on the list of ingredients is “de-alcoholized California rosé wine.”

In this case, the alcohol has been (mostly) removed from a California rosé that went through a true winemaking process. According to the Surely brand website, they “spin” the wine to remove the alcohol. While they don’t go into detail, internet searches for process details indicate that it was most likely a form of reverse-osmosis-meets-centrifuge with special membranes made for just this purpose.

So, how does a can of “dealcoholized” wine contain 0.5 percent alcohol and qualify as “non-alcoholic?”

Esther’s Salted Caramel Apple Fizz / Photo Courtesy of Samantha Gemini Stevens

According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) website, “Beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juices, and certain other flavored beverages which are traditionally perceived by consumers to be ‘non-alcoholic’ could actually contain traces of alcohol (less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume) derived from the use of flavoring extracts or from natural fermentation. FDA also considers beverages containing such trace amounts of alcohol to be ‘non-alcoholic.’

Today I Learned: 

Usually, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms regulates alcoholic beverages, but because they fall under a certain percentage of included alcohol, some drinks are not regulated by the Federal Alcohol Administrative Act (and therefore the BATF) but by the FDA.

Not only might “non-alcoholic” beverages contain alcohol, depending on the type of beverage, but the tolerance level for error is also as much as 0.3 percentage points. That 0.5 percent could be as high as 0.8 percent.

Other examples of labeling to be aware of include:

  • Low alcohol and reduced alcohol. The terms “low alcohol” or “reduced alcohol” may be used for beverages containing less than 2.5 percent alcohol by volume. There are no noted tolerances.
  • Alcohol-free. The term “alcohol-free” may be used only for beverages containing no alcohol. There are no noted tolerances.
  • Spiritless or spirit-free. This is particularly deceptive. It is not the same as alcohol-free. It could be de-alcoholized and contain an allowable amount of alcohol, or it could be made without traditional hard liquor or spirits but contain other forms of fermented alcohol. Some companies have even chosen these terms as brand names.

For some, the choice is more serious than a temporary period of avoiding most alcohol. A difficult relationship with alcohol, an allergy or medical reason may mean that someone cannot have even the smallest amount of alcohol. Paramount to people in this situation is understanding labels and reading menus.

While single-serve non-alcoholic beverages are labeled fairly clearly as having their allowable 0.5% alcohol, not all mocktails or menus are clear.

Drinks and mixers like kombucha, homemade fruit mixes, ginger beer and other ingredients may contain traces of alcohol due to explicit or natural fermentation.

The common use of bitters is also an issue. Bitters are regularly 20 to 30 percent or more alcohol by volume. Because only a dash or two of bitters is called for (in most uses), the alcohol may seem negligible, but they are still alcoholic. (Of note: alcohol-free bitters are available but not always readily available or widely used)

A mocktail may contain no recognizable alcohol alternatives, but if bitters or even partially-fermented ingredients are used, it may contain a small amount of alcohol.

Unfortunately, not all menus are clear, which presents a distinct problem.

“It’s about consent and autonomy,” says Tucker St. John, bar manager at Esther’s Kitchen in Downtown Las Vegas’ 18b Arts District. “I think you shouldn’t [use bitters or similar] unless you ask. [Think of someone with] 25 years of sobriety. Or pregnant women. If someone is very strict on that, and they’ve literally had no alcohol, [not even] mouthwash, they want to completely control that. If you deliver something to somebody and you don’t tell them [everything] in there, you take away their autonomy.”

If you’re unsure about a bottle, can or other packaged item, or need help deciphering a menu offering, read the labels carefully and don’t hesitate to ask your bartender or server specific questions. Look for key terms and research information that will assist your decision-making in a way that works for you.

Offering every guest a choice

My curiosity about how one manages temporary or long-term sobriety has me asking everyone how they approach the idea of alcohol and drinking culture while avoiding alcohol as a whole.

Are they eschewing the idea of alcohol altogether, avoiding mocktails and non-alcoholic beer, wine and distillates, and only drinking waters, juices, sodas, etc.? Or are they embracing the idea of mixology, non-alcoholic beer and pre-packaged alcohol alternatives?

I vacillate between the two. On some days I don’t want the taste or the smell of an alcoholic beverage even if the alcohol is absent. I don’t often drink soda or juice, so sparkling water with a wedge of lime or a great tea blend is perfect. On other occasions, I may drink the previously-mentioned non-alcoholic wines with dinner at home or happily order mocktails. Often it is a social choice, and I have noticed I am making a conscious decision more than ever before.

Erica Bell, general manager of F the Bar in the Fergusons Downtown complex, is excited about the question of choice, showing me a full range of soft drinks, nonalcoholic beer and a couple of mocktails. “We have a large and growing community of light- or non-drinkers,” she says, so no one has to feel like they have to make a huge decision. We offer options that contain that half-percent [of allowable alcohol] many things have, and items that have no alcohol whatsoever. And we are excited to keep exploring.”

Meesh Clifford, a bartender at Davy’s on Main Street downtown, says she enjoys many mocktails and alternatives around Las Vegas but likes saving money by avoiding mixed drinks. “I spent $25 at [a recent event], including tips on every visit to the bar, by choosing soda water and a light mixer. I had four or five drinks. Even mocktails would have cost me $60 to $75 or more.”

Nick Palmeri, the owner of Gaetano’s Ristorante in Henderson, says he doesn’t “mind going to a bar and having a mocktail” but he is also fine with soda water. Some of it, he admits, is knowledge-based. “We went to the Sand Dollar and to Golden Tiki. I ordered soda water at both places. And did it suck? Not really, because I know what their drinks taste like there.”

At Gaetano’s, Palmeri serves mostly Lyre’s brand of alcohol alternatives of which many are alcohol-free, though some are classified as non-alcoholic. He does make many of the restaurant’s mixers, including a delightfully tart sweet and sour mix for margaritas and a delicious Amoretti Sour mocktail, and a coffee concentrate that is dark and unctuous in an espresso martini mocktail. He is mindful and takes the time to explain what he uses in each drink. He also uses alcohol-free bitters.

Chris Leavitt, bar manager at Anima by EDO, is currently building their alcohol alternatives program and says he has mapped out a plan to create drinks for the upcoming menu. “And [using] that map, depending on how great I think the final product is, [will help us] land on a final menu, whether it is on our main menu or [listed separately], just like how we have different menus for vegan, gluten-free and vegetarian options. We will have a great variety of options for [all] guests.”

He adds that the requests for non-alcoholic options are not limited to Dry January and the popularity of such offerings has been growing for over a year.

Sobriety resources on a local and national level

If you or someone you know is struggling with sobriety and requires help, please consider looking into these resources for guidance, mental support and physical assistance.

Alcoholics Anonymous, LV Central Office
(702) 598-1888

Blog: Sober in Vegas



Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/

To find local unique drink specials, read about the Las Vegas bars and restaurants participating in Dry January 2023.

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